Many years ago, I took a 21-day trek with a friend to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal. The expedition party flew out of the capital, Kathmandu, in a 12-seater plane bound for Lukla, commonly known as the gateway to Mount Everest. The trip is a short one, maybe an hour of air time, but it demands courage and precision from the pilot, thanks to the tiny, treacherous runway perched on top of a steep cliff. For half a century, pilots have needed to navigate snow-capped peaks, and endure erratic weather, to land on a runway that is just 500 metres long, and been carved into a mountain ridge which slides into a perilous three-kilometre drop.
These conditions have rightly earned Lukla the nickname of ‘the world’s most dangerous airport’ because every year a plane makes a fatal misstep and hurtles over the edge into the three-kilometre deep abyss. Thankfully we survived the flight but when we disembarked the plane, grabbed our backpacks from the hold, and took a look around, I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can’t see the mountains. Where are the mountains?’ The fact is, I was looking for them at the angle that one might look for Mt Buller, from straight ahead, when in actual fact what was needed was a 90-degree adjustment of my head to search them out in the skies.
When the Himalayan range finally came into view – raw, majestic, ancient and enduring – I felt my eyes fill with tears as I was completely overcome at the sheer beauty and immensity of it. And what I didn’t know then, but have come to understand now, is that I was experiencing what the romantics described as ‘the Sublime’; an enigmatic experience that involves our taking pleasure in being overwhelmed by sights, sensations or experiences that are greater or more powerful than us, which in turn evoke a sense of fear and awe in equal measure.
Nature, as I learned that day, has the capacity to inspire just such a response in us; so too does religion (which is why there is a certain silence that settles on all those who enter the great cathedrals of the world, similar, I might add, to the silence that enveloped every single person who stood before Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ when it was exhibited at the NGV in 2004). Cultivating reverence invites us to acknowledge the aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of our humanity, and offers us a wonderful reminder of our place in the great scheme of things.
Head of Senior School